Gloriously skewering the social hierarchy of college, Penelope is the brilliantly funny story of one of the most singular, memorable heroines in recent fiction.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1.
Letters of Note
In the July before school started, Penelope Davis O’Shaunessy, an incoming Harvard freshman of average height and lank hair, filled out a survey about what type of roommate she was looking for. She felt she had accurately represented herself as someone who was not too messy while, at the same time, not too clean. Hopefully, she would end up with people who answered the same description.
In August, the Harvard Admissions Office sent Penelope a brief note with the names of her future roommates and their contact information. One roommate, Emma Green, was from New York City, and the other, Lan Wu, was from Palo Alto, California. Penelope hesitated, unsure of whether to contact either of them. Luckily both contacted her before she could decide what to do about the matter.
The first missive was from Emma, the resident of New York City:
Hi, Penelope and Lan,
I wanted to get the ball rolling on introductions, so I figured I’d tell you guys a bit about myself. My name is Emma and I’m from New York City. I can’t believe I’m going to be missing out on New York pizza and dry cleaning for a whole four years! I graduated from Spence and am thinking about concentrating in history, with maybe an eye toward law school. I am incredibly committed to my extracurricular activities and am especially interested in joining student government or the Institute of Politics. Go Schumer! Of course, I like to have a good time, if I ever get time to have it. Also I hear we are living in the worst building on campus. My mother is complaining.
Penelope was just about to wonder how it was possible to miss dry cleaning in any particular region when she received an e-mail from Lan of Palo Alto, California:
Yes, I am a smoker.
* * *
Apart from this correspondence, Penelope’s summer was much like any other summer. She worked at an ice cream shop. She went to the beach. Occasionally, she pretended she was Julia Child and talked in a funny voice while cooking beef bouillon. Penelope was normal and typical in many respects. Thus she looked forward to college with a certain amount of pleasant apprehension and dread.
When the day finally arrived, Penelope loaded all her possessions into the car and tumbled in next to her mother. Uncharacteristically, Penelope’s mother was silent for a while, but as soon as they got onto the highway, her eyes started filling up with tears. Then she said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. I just can’t. Doesn’t it seem like two seconds ago that you were in high school?”
“Yes, it does,” said Penelope.
“I can’t believe it. It’s sad, but so exciting for you. I bet you will meet the best people.”
“Probably tons of famous scientists,” volunteered Penelope.
“Probably,” said her mother. There was a bit of a silence.
“So what are you going to do once you are up there?” asked Penelope’s mother. She said this very casually, which made Penelope nervous.
“How do you mean?” asked Penelope.
“What I mean is, do you have any strategies for making friends at Harvard? How are you going to make a good impression? How will you introduce yourself?”
“I don’t know,” said Penelope. “I was thinking I would strike a balance between friendliness and intelligent raillery.”
“Um, OK,” said Penelope’s mother. “I mean, you can be friendly, but not too friendly. Sometimes silence is best. Especially in the beginning.”
“I suppose,” said Penelope hesitantly.
“It doesn’t do anyone good to be too enthusiastic, you know, because that can put people off. Just be friendly. Friendly and aloof.”
“OK,” said Penelope. A reconciliation of opposites, she thought.
“So let’s go through this. What are you going to say to people when you meet them?”
“Penelope, seriously. Because, you know, I have heard you say some things that might put people off and you really have to be careful of that.”
“What kinds of things? I don’t think I say anything weird,” said Penelope.
“Penelope, I know what I’m talking about.”
“See, I don’t,” said Penelope.
“The car seat thing, for example. Whenever you bring that up, it is totally bizarre.”
“What do you mean?” asked Penelope. “What car seat?”
“Penelope, you know which car seat.”
“You mean the car seat I sat in until I was in fourth grade? That’s an interesting anecdote. It is like something Noël Coward would say at a party.”
“What?” said her mother. “It really isn’t.”
“Fine,” said Penelope.
“And you never even had scoliosis.”
“But I was spiritually in a brace,” said Penelope. Her mother ignored her.
“Why don’t you promote yourself? Why don’t you say that you are a National Merit Scholar?”
“Who would want to know about that?” said Penelope sulkily.
“Lots of people,” said her mother.
“Not any famous scientists!” said Penelope. “They would find that very boring information. What do you want me to say? Hello, I am Penelope, I am a National Merit Scholar?”
“No, you are missing the point of what I am saying,” said Penelope’s mother.
“OK, except I am not,” said Penelope. They were silent until they got to Harvard.
* * *
Penelope was duly awed. Harvard stretched languidly and impressively into the rest of Cambridge like a redbrick monopoly. It was larger and more obliquely Federalist than Penelope remembered and, if she thought about it, she was intimidated. To her right she saw a large clock tower; to her left she saw a tobacco shop filled with antique pipes. In the center she saw a gigantic Au Bon Pain.
“Wow,” she observed to her mother.
“I know,” said her mother. “I have never seen that big of an Au Bon Pain before either.”
* * *
Penelope and her mother parked the car on a small cobblestone side street and followed several signs emblazoned with arrows and the word “Registration” in crimson filagree lettering. Eventually they arrived at a small table in the middle of Harvard Yard, the large field around which all the freshmen were going to live. The Yard was very impressive, a wide expanse of perfectly manicured lawns and pathways, surrounded by old brick dormitories. Penelope remembered Harvard Yard from her admissions brochure, specifically a picture of it where Abercrombie models were playing touch football in Harvard sweatshirts and disheveled cashmere bow ties. She was excited to live there. In her fantasies, Penelope pictured herself advocating for Title IX while attractively tackling several men at once.
Two men were sitting at the registration table. Both were about twenty and one had a ponytail. They were laughing at something.
“I know, man,” said one of them. “What would we do without old Fermat kicking us in the balls?”
“Hello?” said Penelope.
“Oh, hi,” said the ponytail while the first one recovered himself. “What can we do for you?”
“I’m here to register. I’m a freshman. Penelope O’Shaunessy?”
“O’Shaunessy, O’Shaunessy, ahh, here we are. You have two roommates, as you must already know by now, and you live in Pennypacker, which you also probably know. Here is your key. You live on the third floor...”
“Um, where is Pennypacker?” asked Penelope. “Is it that one?” She pointed to a large brick building with a neoclassical stone porch. A handsome man with chin-length blond hair was walking past it. He was wearing a three-piece khaki linen suit and laughing into a cell phone, like the regent of a tiny, unpronounceable European principality. Penelope wondered if he was drifting toward the registration desk. It seemed as though he was going to.
“Oh, no, it’s actually down past the library, across the street,” Ponytail said, pointing to an unseen building. Penelope craned her neck, but she was distracted by the blond man, who really was heading toward the registration desk.
“But I thought all the freshmen lived here,” Penelope said.
“Most all of them do,” Ponytail said. “You, on the other hand, live in a converted apartment building above a radio station.”
“Oh,” said Penelope. She was disappointed but tried to hide it. The blond man was now within earshot.
“The radio station is great though,” said Ponytail. “Sometimes they play music for twenty-two hours at a time, uninterrupted.”
“Is that fun?” said Penelope.
“Only if you like flutes, darling, and honestly, who does? In their heart of hearts,” said the blond man as he walked by. Then he was gone.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading in this guide are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Penelope, Rebecca Harrington’s hilarious look at one young woman’s freshman year at college.
1. How do Penelope’s first days at Harvard set the tone of the novel? What in particular does Penelope find different from what she expects college to be like—both from what she knows about Harvard and what her mother tells her?
2. Penelope seems oblivious at times to Harvard’s protocols, both academic and social. Is Penelope’s reaction to her peers’ behaviors sensible and level-headed, or does it display a certain lack of ambition and perspective on her part? To what extent is she aware of and bothered by her somewhat outsider status?
3. Throughout the novel there are many references to Harvard buildings, hangouts, traditions, and even the terminology students use without much explanation. Why does the author choose to use Harvard in particular rather than basing the story at an unnamed college? In what ways do the details sharpen the satirical thrust of the novel?
4. What role does social class play in the novel? What are the signifiers of class that Penelope sees, and what effect do they have on her friendships and sense of belonging?
5. What draws Penelope and Ted together? Is their friendship based on happenstance and convenience or a shared feeling of loneliness and not fitting in with the crowd?
6. Ted and Penelope’s first near-romantic encounter is far from perfect (pp. 32-34): he divulges how he misses his old girlfriend in California, but then awkwardly asks Penelope to lay down with him for a fleeting moment that neither of them can make sense of. How does this scene, and their conversation, bring out their emotional and social confusion? Which comic touches and clichés add to the authenticity of the scene and invoke the reader’s empathy?
7. What explains Penelope’s obsession with Gustav? What does he represent to her, both on his own and as a foil to Ted? Does Penelope get carried away by her own fantasies and expectations of college love, or is Gustav genuinely interested in her? To what extent does Penelope control the direction their relationship takes?
8. Harrington puts a great deal of emphasis on Penelope’s courses (“Images of Shakespeare,” and the course nicknamed “Counting People”). Did you feel the author’s parodic descriptions of them were more a reflection of Penelope’s character, or a sly comment on academia’s pomposity, or both?
9. How does the production of Camus’s Caligula bring together the themes of the novel? In what ways do preparations for and the actual performance encapsulate Penelope’s overall experiences during her freshman year?
10. What do Penelope’s conversations with her mother, scattered throughout the book, contribute to your sense of how Penelope sees and defines herself? What do her mother’s opinions reflect about the relationship between mother and daughter? What do they show about the universal concerns of a parent? Did you feel that her mother helped or hurt Penelope in preparing her for college life?
11. Is Penelope unusually naïve and unsophisticated for someone of her age and background? What reasons might the author have for creating a protagonist who seems to be unprepared for—or unaware of—what to expect as a college freshman? Does Penelope become more aware and sure of herself over the course of the novel?
12. What is the significance of the waffle depicted on the cover of the book?